Anyone expecting Round 2 to break out between Cullman and Walker during Friday’s third-round series is likely to leave Valley Park sorely disappointed.
Eight months since the infamous coaches brawl following a season-opening thriller on the football field, the Bearcat baseball team will make the school’s first trip back to Viking territory for a three-game set starting at 5 p.m.
Coach Brent Patterson said the Black and Gold had a short discussion about the return trek on Sunday night. Since then, their only concerns have included finding a dry place to practice and coming up with a gameplan for being one of the last four teams in the hunt for the Class 5A state title.
“That’s an incident that involved our two communities that was however many months ago,” Patterson said. “To us, it couldn’t be any further out of our minds. It’s a non-issue.”
Auston Neal, one of the few Cullman baseball players on the gridiron for the ’Cats 13-10 comeback that preceded the post-game altercation, hasn’t been able to avoid the obvious buzz surrounding this week’s matchup. That doesn’t mean he’s given any of it a second thought, though.
“I’ve heard several people ask the question about the whole deal that happened or whatever, but we’re not really worried about that,” the senior said. “We’re here to go play baseball against them, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The second-ranked Black and Gold (38-10) will have to get by Walker (23-19) without the services of Sam Huser. The ace, who’s 8-0, missed the Hartselle series with an injury to his throwing arm and will be “shut down” again this week. Patterson said there’s a chance Huser could return later in the playoffs as long as Cullman continues to advance.
In the meantime, the Bearcats will likely move forward with Jesse Scott as their Game 1 starter and Neal as the go-to guy in the nightcap. Patterson said plans could change depending on the way each game progresses, however, with Branch Hill and Noah Fondren thrown out as other possible starters. The coach is also confident handing the ball off to Jackson Hill, Carter Bowen and others.
“The good thing about it is we’ve got so many options and people to go to,” Patterson said.
Neal carved up a giant slice of redemption against Hartselle last Friday. Nearly a year after being rocked in the eighth inning of the series decider — a heartbreaking 14-5 loss — the senior was the one doing the rocking. He held the Tigers to a single hit, struck out 11 and retired the last 18 batters in order.
As is generally the case with the hurler, Neal diverted the attention away from himself, instead giving the glory to God and taking a team-first approach.
“That’s pretty awesome to be able to say I came back and did that,” Neal said. “But it was even more awesome to just be able to move on. That’s what we’re trying to do each and every week.”
Walker was the one doing the moving on the last time the teams met in the postseason.
Justin Kamplain closed the door on Cullman in 2010 with an eight-inning, 3-2 triumph in Game 3 of the third round. The southpaw, who’s now the University of Alabama’s Saturday starter, also earned the win in the opener only two days earlier.
It’d be easy to imagine the ’Cats are out for revenge in the rematch, but Patterson said it’s not that kind of situation. There’s not a soul on the current roster who was on the diamond for the 2010 clash, or, furthermore, a single player who’s ever had to travel for a playoff game.
Home or away, center fielder Maison Goodwin doesn’t see much of a difference.
“We prepare the same,” said the speedster, who recently committed to Wallace State. “We’re just ready to go play.”
Patterson said there have been plenty of heated games played between Cullman and Walker in the past and doesn’t expect anything to change in the rivalry’s latest chapter. The coach wants his players to show “how intense and competitive we are,” but at the same time realize “it’s not life and death” when the final pitch is eventually thrown.
Those expectations are no different for the Black and Gold faithful, especially in wake of the electric atmosphere expected due to the schools’ recent history.
“We want to conduct ourselves with class wherever we go,” Patterson said. “We ask our fans to do the same thing — to go over there and represent our community the way we want to be represented. As adults, we’re examples for our kids, and our kids are going to see what kind of model we set for them.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at email@example.com.